Just 10 years ago, if we’d seen someone posing in public for a picture they were taking of themselves, we’d have found it quite gauche and narcissistic. Today, in the age of the selfie, it is so commonplace we barely register this sight. We are surrounded by people photographing themselves for social media. Such vanity has become so ubiquitous, we’ve become almost immune to the shock of it.
It’s easy to see this preoccupation with self-image as a ghastly modern phenomenon without precedent in the history of mankind. And it’s true that we’ve never seen anything like this before. Without the technology to permit it - namely, the front-facing camera on a smartphone - there was obviously nothing on this scale. Yet the selfie as we know it today does have historical origins, as I explore in a new BBC Four documentary called Me, My Selfie and I.
As a conceptual artist, I’d argue that the prototype selfie dates back hundreds of years to the many self-portraits we see hanging in galleries everywhere. Perhaps the most interesting is Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait. This is not a conventional self-portrait, but one in which the artist teases us with a suggestion of his own reflection in a mirror in the background of the painting. Scrawled above the mirror in ornate Latin script are the words “Jan van Eyck was here.” It’s a far more subtle self-reference than the brazen photographic self-portraits that are taken in their millions today; but it’s nevertheless an early example of inserting oneself in the picture to prove we were “here”, like van Eyck.
And in its creation of an image that may or may not be “real”, it does what technology does now. An influencer’s selfie on a private jet that she’s hired specifically for the purpose creates an illusion for the viewer. Van Eyck did the same when he placed himself into a particular setting to challenge our notion of reality. Of course, in the past the self-portrait was not a universally available medium like the selfie of today, which anyone with a smartphone can produce. Only those in a privileged position could make portraits of themselves for posterity. But self-portraits that are centuries old, and the omnipresent selfies of today, have similarly been produced to satisfy their subject’s need for validation and self-worth. It’s an impulse that is part of human nature, only now we’ve been given the ability to act on it every single day.
As for the kind of self-regard and introspection that selfie culture gives a free pass to, there’s again some historical precedent. Just look at the patients on Sigmund Freud’s couch, revealing their innermost desires and dreams. The difference today is we are all “patients” and technology has given us a megaphone. The images and thoughts we reveal online may be broadcast around the world within seconds, but when we type them on our phones we still do so as if we’re in intimate communication with one person. Just as the privacy of the psychoanalyst’s room helped people overcome their difficulties in talking about things that were troubling them, so social media gives a platform to anyone who wants to talk about their feelings.
But how true are the digital versions of the self that we share with the world routinely? The filter between what’s real and what’s not has been lost; the lines that divide those two things now so blurred that we quite often struggle to tell the difference. This new obsession with publishing pictures and information about ourselves is undoubtedly narcissistic and vain. But narcissism is nothing new either, the name itself dating back to Greek mythology.
Today every taker of a selfie is in love with their own reflection, just like Narcissus himself. We’re as captivated by our own self-image as a six-month-old baby the first time he catches sight of himself in a mirror. Or, like Groucho Marx in the famous mirror scene from Duck Soup (1933), where he eloquently captures the human obsession with reflection of the self and self-image. That scene, in which Harpo Marx is his brother’s “reflection” in the mirror, is played for laughs. Today we may add funny filters to our selfies, but mostly we’re not laughing at ourselves. Somewhere along the way we lost the self-awareness to do so.
Still, we’ve always been a world of image-makers. Through them we navigate the world. Just as explorers once made pictures of plants they encountered on their travels, so we take pictures of ourselves to prove we were really there and fix each moment in time before it slips into the past. Mortality terrifies everyone, and there’s nothing surprising about our desire to capture and record what is fleeting. We all have those existential moments where we say to ourselves “my God, I’m alive,” and “how am I here?” and taking selfies might be seen as some kind of therapeutic reaction. It’s part of the human condition to want to hold tight to something that would otherwise elude us.
How ironic, then, that this very desire to hold on to something results in us losing so much. We have lost our connection with nature and reality, for a start. In the programme I visit a woman who’s rejected all the trappings of modernity and gone to live in a mud hut in Pembrokeshire, with no technology around her. This is an extreme example at the other end of the spectrum, but it does remind us of everything we risk losing touch with when we spend our lives glued to our phones.
We’re also losing time in the process. If your doctor told you you had three weeks to live, would you spend any of it on Facebook? In our rush to catch hold of the present, we’re letting our most precious commodity - time - slip through our fingers as we fritter it away on our apps. And we’re never actually living in the moment. Our gaze is so fixed on the future - on taking a photo of what we’re doing, for the purpose of then proving it to others - we neglect to experience the present as we might.
The third thing we risk losing is ourselves. I also meet a woman in the programme who has outsourced her love-life to a tech firm, and has strangers sending messages on her behalf to prospective romantic partners online. When we start becoming characters living fictional lives - whether this is through online dating, gaming or the exaggerated personas we create and project into cyberspace on a daily basis - it’s hard to see how we’ll ever feel whole and complete. So how worried about all this should we be? The accelerated reality we’re living in can be hard to make sense of, so mad it all seems. But looking at it through the perspective of historical events helps us understand today’s world. We’re in a period of phenomenal change, and quite often lose sight of the wood for the trees. But it might be that in 10 years’ time we look back and understand what all this has been about. History is riddled with reevaluations of the self. It all levels itself out in the end.
As told to Rosa Silverman
Me, My Selfie and I is a BBC Arts programme for BBC Four. It airs on Monday March 18 at 9pm